Gangs are nothing new in America. They've been around for at least 200 years. But gangs today are more widespread, better armed, and more prone to commit serious crimes than ever before.
Recently, Blade reporter Bridget Tharp took us inside the lives of gang members and the neighborhoods they terrorize. It's not a pretty picture.
Nationally, there are thousands of gangs and hundreds of thousands of gang members. Though largely an urban phenomenon, more and more gangs are found in rural and suburban communities.
A Toledo police database includes the names of 3,500 young people who are identified as members of one of the city's scores of gangs. Sporting names such as the Manor Boys, the Woods Boys, and the Wreck Squad, they terrorize innocent families and conduct blood feuds with rival gangs. Gang members, some little more than children, are involved in criminal activity ranging from burglary and assault to drug trafficking and murder. Substance abuse is widespread.
Gang activity is most evident in poorer neighborhoods and in the city's low-income housing projects. Young people join gangs for many reasons. They're surrounded by poverty and crime. Many come from homes with no father present or have little parental supervision and support. Others have low self-esteem, do poorly in school, or feel marginalized in other ways. Some join gangs for protection, a feeling of belonging, or increased status.
Indeed, reasons for joining a gang are so varied that it makes preventing or reducing gang membership an intractable problem. According to a just-released Justice Department report, "Best Practices to Address Community Gang Problems," the first step is for the community to recognize that a problem exists.
That's all too easy for people such as Shaliah Lacy, a single mother of three. She and her children have been sleeping in her car since her apartment windows were smashed one night by gang members who claim Brand Whitlock Homes - a Nebraska Avenue housing project that's more than 70 years old - as their turf.
Ms. Lacy and her children deserve to feel secure in their home. People should be able to walk through their neighborhoods without being assaulted or harassed. Shoppers shouldn't have to fear that roaming groups of kids will turn malls into battlegrounds.
Programs such as those run by the Lucas County Youth Treatment Center have had success helping youthful offenders free themselves from drugs and alcohol, get an education, and plan for lives outside of gangs. And while gang members must be held accountable for their crimes, more needs to be done, especially to intercede before young people join gangs.
Gangs may never be eradicated, but they can be controlled and their influence reduced. They are a community problem, and community action is necessary to break the hold gangs have on young lives.